Not long ago I screened a copy of Death and the Civil War, which premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 18. Based largely on Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering, the show explores the implications of the tremendous loss of life (to the tune of over 700,000 dead) during the costliest war Americans have ever fought on their own soil.
One of the most salient facts about this bloodshed was the degree to which the country was unprepared to deal with it. Nineteenth-century Americans had particular notions about what constituted a “good death,” but the war forced men to come to terms with the prospect of a sudden, horrific, and ignominious end to their lives. Neither of the two contending governments were adequately prepared for the number of losses either, lacking standardized policies or an infrastructure to handle the identification, removal, and burial of the corpses. Nor was there a systematic effort to ensure the provision of prompt and accurate information about their fate to loved ones back home. This absence of a comprehensive official effort in the war’s early days forced private organizations and individuals to fill these roles, seeing to the burial of dead comrades and writing letters to their relatives.
There was improvisation and change on many levels. On an immediate and practical one, embalming grew in popularity to answer the desires of families to have soldiers’ bodies shipped home for burial. The horrific death toll exacted by the war’s larger battles prompted the creation of national cemeteries. Congress began authorizing the acquisition of land for burials near major battlefields in 1862, but with the establishment of a national burial ground at Gettysburg the following year, the issue of soldiers’ internment became a matter of civic responsibility and public sentiment.
In fact, the growing awareness that the public owed something to the war dead and their families contributed to important changes in conceptions of the proper scope of federal activity. In some cases it took the advocacy of private individuals to accomplish this; after losing his son to the war, Henry Bowditch called for the creation of a proper ambulance service, and Clara Barton worked to locate information on the missing at the request of distraught families while advocating for greater government attention to the dead and their loved ones. This growing sense of national obligation, along with a fear that Union graves would be neglected or desecrated by hostile Southerners, led Montgomery Meigs to call for a comprehensive survey of U.S. war burials, many of which had been haphazard affairs conducted by comrades as circumstances permitted. Official requests for information on graves brought forth a deluge of written testimony, and surveyors eventually located and documented thousands of Union interments across the former Confederacy. The national government oversaw the relocation of over 300,000 of these bodies to national cemeteries, one of the largest federal programs undertaken up to that time. The war had changed the relationship between the government and its soldiers and citizens as the scale of bloodshed led to a developing notion of a debt owed by the nation to those who gave their lives for it.
This official effort did not encompass Confederate dead; instead, Southern women responded to federal neglect of their soldiers’ graves by organizing their own volunteer efforts. They tended to the graveyards of Rebel soldiers in Richmond and saw to the repatriation of Southern bodies to their native soil. Both North and South developed postwar traditions to perpetuate this sense of obligation to the war dead, but there was thus a sectional difference in the level of government aid available in seeing to the disposition of bodies.
Death and the Civil War covers additional topics not discussed in this review, such as the manner in which Lincoln gave meaning to the war’s dead in his dedication speech at Gettysburg, the loss of life in contraband camps, and Alexander Gardner’s photographic exhibition of battlefield casualties. (The photos themselves are utilized to chilling effect throughout the program.) It’s a documentary that manages to be comprehensive and intimate at the same time, conveying something of the scale of death created by the war while offering glimpses of the ways individual Americans lived out the experience in their own words. By making connections between the battlefield and the home front and by exploring the war’s impact on religion, race, and memory, it brings some of the questions of the new military history to public attention. It’s both informative and sobering, offering us an utterly unromanticized look at a war which resolved important issues at the heart of American history, but only at a fearsome cost. It’s well worth your time, so tune in Tuesday night if you get the chance.